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Belly Up: Benjamin Gander of Nellie’s

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With its quaint portraits of women and a Goethe-inspired staircase that reads “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love,” Nellie’s (900 U St., NW; 202-332-6335) isn’t your typical sports bar. Then again, the Foosball table, scoreboards, and multiple ESPN-tuned TVs don’t exactly spell out “gay bar”—which is what Nellie’s is as well. An earlier visit to the bar during the DC United/LA Galaxy soccer match revealed a curious collection of people, all gathered together by the love of the sport, the promise of watching Brit sensation David Beckham play, and a craving for the bar’s signature sliders.

Bartender Benjamin Gander has been working at Nellie’s since this sophisticated-looking bar—which once served as a photography studio for Addison Scurlock and is a block away from the 9:30 Club—opened in early July. Gander, an Arizona native, talks about Nellie’s unique blend of customers and fills us in on his favorite sports, drinks, and hangouts.

When did you first start bartending?

I started while in college—probably when I was around 19. I started working at a loungelike martini bar. From there I worked at some fine-dining places before graduating and moving to DC.

How did you end up here?

I bartended at Logan Tavern for a couple of years and then heard about this place opening through a friend. I interviewed and got hired right away. I could tell the owners were laid-back and cool, and so was the rest of the crew. We all work well together, and so far it’s been really fun.

What’s unusual about Nellie’s?

The bar has more of a laid-back feel, where you can hang out and watch TV. We have an awesome rooftop deck, so a lot of people like to have a drink outside. Wear your T-shirt and jeans and you’re good to go.

What’s the significance behind the two large portraits adorning the wall?

Both are of [owner] Doug Schantz’s grandmothers—one is Nellie, and then there’s “Great-Nellie.” He was very close to them and named the place after them. Plus there’s that added play on words for a sports bar to be called Nellie’s.

What’s the clientele like?

As of now, because we’re the new place, we’re getting a little bit of everybody. Most bars are cliquey and have their own little niche, but we seem to be getting a little from every group. As far as specific crowds go, we don’t have any, but we get a lot of same faces. Lots of regulars already, which is good to see.

As a sports bar, you must carry a large selection of beers. What are some favorites?

The one that I love is Dogfish IPA, from a brewery in Rehoboth. It’s hard to find on tap, so a lot of people enjoy it. The most popular is Allagash wheat beer, but we’ve got some of the basics, too—Guinness and Peroni. We have a great variety.

What are other popular drinks?

I work mostly during happy hour, so people love the cheap beer and $2 sampling vodka. Other than that, there are lots of orders for vodka tonics and margaritas.

Do you have a favorite drink?

I’m a big fan of the Stoli Blueberi, so I drink that with numerous mixers—Sprite, cranberry juice. I love margaritas as well.

Are these also your favorite drinks to make?

I don’t have any particular favorites, but I like the fruitier drinks myself, so those are the ones I generally like to make.

Your menu looks good. Any favorite item?

I love our sliders—it’s a good price for great burgers. The bread is awesome, and you get a lot of variety as far as fixings to go on it. Nellie’s menu isn’t your typical bar food—it’s higher end.

What do you enjoy most about bartending?

It’s an easy job. I get to sleep in, then come in and chat with people—which is good when it’s a setting where people are laid-back and up for some fun. Bartending is the best way to meet new people. And you get to drink a lot afterward, so … .

What’s the least glamorous aspect of your job?

There are some nasty people you have to deal with, some drunks who are a little inappropriate—but that comes with the territory. There’s also a lot of hard labor, carrying boxes and beers. Other than that, it’s the late hours.

Time for some quick sports-related questions. DC United or LA Galaxy?

DC United.

Soccer or football?

Soccer, for sure. Got to love David Beckham.

Any sports you enjoy watching?

I’m not a big fan of sports watching—I like to play them myself. Volleyball is my favorite.

Favorite hangout spot in the city other than Nellie’s?

I love Café Saint-Ex. It just depends on the mood you’re in. If you feel like dancing, a little Cobalt or Chaos on the right night.
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